Worldwide Alternatives to ViolencE


The Great Wave (by Hokusai)

PAINTING: The Great Wave by Hokusai

The Many Causes of Violence

What causes people to be violent? Is it an innate predisposition, like an unexploded mine, just waiting to be set off? Is it caused by social pressures and economic inequality? Are the causes within the family? For 18 months I have immersed myself in this question, and at last feel ready to report what I have found out.

The conclusions I summarise here are not "final". While evidence for the is strong, I will continue studying and learning for years to come. New data may change my views. I hope WAVE will always be open to a change of heart when new evidence is provided.

There is no one cause of violence. Convincing arguments can be put forward that levels of violence are increased by disrupted upbringing, situational stress, economic inequality, deprivation of justice, extreme poverty, low wages, unemployment, social isolation, overcrowding and poor housing. I accept that all of these are contributory factors.

I am also persuaded that violence levels are increased by a culture of violence, absence of moral or spiritual teaching, exposure to media violence, and ready availability of firearms. Concerning diet and alcohol, I have read conflicting evidence and not yet formed an opinion. Genetic influences can be shown to play a part for some people, but are really triggered by environmental factors.

Yet, if I take all of these factors and add them together, I am not persuaded they explain more than 40% of the levels of violence in our societies. One class of cause alone appears to be the prime cause of violent behaviour, and I tentatively believe it accounts for 60% – or more – of all violence. For that reason I believe it should be a prime focus of WAVE activity for the foreseeable future.

Family Violence

This "prime" root cause is early life experience within the family – specifically to receive poor parenting. Poor parenting can mean neglect, or direct physical violence, but also includes shouting, emotional abuse, and use of violent discipline. It can be perpetrated by parents who mean well, and believe they are doing what is best for their children, but whose interactions with their children unwittingly cause lasting damage to the quality of lives their offspring are able to lead.

The greatest risk of suffering violence, emotional abuse, sexual assault and murder for people in western society occurs in the home, at the hands of other family members (Gelles and Cornell 1985). Gelles states that violence in the family is more common than love.

Within this overall pattern, child abuse has a central role. Despite decades of attention to this issue, the NSPCC in Britain reports that child abuse today is just as serious a problem as it was 50 years ago. One factor often cited as the cause of its persistence is the transmission of patterns of violence and abuse from one generation to another – the Cycle of Violence.

According to Patterson, DeBaryshe and Ramsey (1989), the cycle of violence persists because violent family members directly train their children in antisocial behaviours. Such parents use little positive reinforcement, effective punishment for deviant behaviours is missing or erratic, and "dozens of daily interactions" reinforce coercive behaviour. Some reinforcement is positive (e.g. laughing), but the most important is escape-conditioning: the child uses aversive behaviours to terminate unwelcome intrusions. In these families, coercive behaviours are functional, making survival possible in a highly aversive social system.

Harsh Discipline

Harsh parenting frequently runs in families. Buchanan (1996) cites a number of examples demonstrating families continuing a pattern of chronic and very severe child maltreatment over many generations, despite substantial intervention. Among many studies indicating harsh discipline leads to violence and criminality in children are studies by Huesmann and colleagues in 1983 and Patterson and Dishion in 1988 showing poor or explosive discipline practices of grandparents correlated with anti-social behaviour by both parents and grandchildren.

In 1990, Cohen and colleagues measured 16 family, context and parenting predictors of adolescent anti-social or delinquent behaviour. Power-assertive punishment by parents was the most potent. Farrington, in 1995, identified "harsh authoritarian discipline" applied at age 8-10 as a significant predictor of adult criminal behaviour.

Three separate 1993 studies, by Egeland, Kaufman and Zigler, and Oliver, all concluded that 30-40% of abused parents will abuse their children. Restrictive definition means this may be an understatement. This compares with a 2-3% rate in the general population. Men who experienced violent childhoods are more likely to assault their wives; children observing such abuse are more likely to assault their own spouse later in life.

Parental Competence

McCord (1990) found parental child-rearing differences had greater effects on delinquency, juvenile deviance and crime than parental criminality. Patterson and colleagues believe parental discipline may be the principal cause of inter-generational transmission of criminality. They cite a growing consensus that parents of antisocial children lack parenting skills (Kazdin, 1985; Loeber & Dishion, 1983; Rutter & Giller, 1983).

by George Hosking, December 1997


In a future article the author will refer to protective factors, and suggest what actions might be taken as a result of the conclusions above.

Please write to George Hosking by E-Mail, or at Cameron House, 61 Friends Road, Croydon, Surrey CR0 1ED, England, if you wish add to, disagree with, or comment on anything he may say.

At the present time, Members of WAVE and other interested people, may assist in identifying and defining the Root Causes of Violence. Contributions are welcome via e-mail.


George Hosking is a Founder of WAVE.


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